Five-one. On beds and couches, on mate’s floors and in identikit hotel rooms, Liverpool supporters will have woken on Wednesday morning feeling a strong urge to pinch themselves. After two of the most thrilling games imaginable, the best team in the world – in the words of their own manager – had been not simply beaten, but vanquished, and on the biggest stage of all. Five-one on aggregate. Stick the kettle on, pet, I’m making myself a victory brew.
The score was just 3-1 on aggregate when Dejan Lovren gathered his team-mates on the Etihad Stadium turf and urged them to wake the hell up. Manchester City were bending beams of light around them, and an early goal by Gabriel Jesus had given the home side – and crucially, the home fans – a route back into the tie. Afterwards, it was put to Lovren how calm he looked. “If I’m not calm, then we have a big problem,” he retorted. “We talked on the pitch, a few of us, and said we need to keep our heads, and stick together, because this is a crucial moment.”
Then, at half-time, with City still a goal up but threatening to open the gates, Lovren took the floor again. He reminded his team-mates that they were 50 minutes away from the semi-finals of the Champions League, and that they needed to raise their line, and raise their game. “To be honest, I was shouting a bit,” he said. “I told the lads to wake up, because it was not good enough. It was all positive, nothing negative, but I needed to remind the guys.”
This was a Liverpool side, remember, without their suspended captain Jordan Henderson, and who have been derided for much of the last two years for being a crisp and brilliant team with a core as yielding as mashed potato. Only a few months ago, Lovren himself looked a haunted husk of a man, substituted before half-time after enduring a waking nightmare against Tottenham at Wembley. Yet at this pivotal moment of the game, it was Lovren’s Liverpool who were girding themselves for the final push, and City who were disintegrating. Pep Guardiola had been sent to the stands. City officials were making frantic representations to Uefa. Within 11 minutes of the restart, Mohamed Salah had given Liverpool an away goal. Game over.
The point here is not to highlight any vast disparity between City and Liverpool. Quite the opposite, in fact. Liverpool are not five goals to one better than City as a club, as players, as people, just as City were not five goals to nil better than Liverpool in December. It is, instead, to underline just how fine the margins are at this rarefied level, just how susceptible these games are to luck, to swings in momentum, to a single period of supremacy, to a single essential flaw. As Guardiola put it: “In these competitions, when the teams are so equal, the impact is so big.”
Guardiola was referring to the decision to disallow Leroy Sane’s goal just before half-time, one that ultimately led to his own dismissal and his team’s subsequent implosion. City fans will pinpoint that as the decisive moment, and doubtless if had Sane’s goal stood, and City had gone into the break 2-0 up, it would have changed the complexion of the tie. But over 180 minutes, you would be hard-pushed to argue it would have affected the outcome.
After all, City would still have needed to keep a clean sheet, and you could scarcely blame a Spanish referee for the ghostly translucence of Aymeric Laporte for Liverpool’s first goal, or the maladroit weariness of Nicolas Otamendi for Liverpool’s second. Nor could you blame him for City generating 31 shots over the two legs and finding the target with just three of them. (Another measure of Liverpool’s resilience, by the way: 16 of those shots – more than half – were blocked. Sixteen!)
Put simply: if City’s claim on the Champions League trophy is so frail that it can be derailed by a single refereeing decision, then maybe it wasn’t that robust in the first place.
Clearly, then, when the margins are this fine and the teams this high in quality, other factors come into play. Game management: the ability to seize the key moments, the key passages of play. And in order to seize them, you first have to recognise them. City’s occasional tendency to concede goals in clusters suggests a clear deficiency in that area, and perhaps when you are drilled to train and play at the same breakneck intensity for 90 minutes, for 10 months of the year, then those moments become harder to recognise.
“We had luck, in a couple of moments, to be honest,” Lovren admitted. “But when you look over the two games, we have been brave. And when you are brave, the luck goes with you.”
Again, City weren’t feeble or cowardly. They were just second best, and not for the first time in a game of this magnitude. They learned what Guardiola has now learned in each of his last six seasons – that the Champions League is not controllable in the way a league campaign is. That being exceptionally good – even the best – is no guarantee of anything. That by and large, these big games are won and lost on players’ ability to make their own weather. For a manager whose fascination with detail can often verge on obsession, it is a best-guess explanation of why his sides have so often fallen apart at the sharp end of this competition.
“The competition is wide open,” Lovren said. “Anything is possible now. From a personal point of view, I don’t want Real Madrid in the semi-finals. They have a lot of experience in the Champions League, a lot of records, and over the past three seasons it is always them. But whoever we get will find it difficult to come to Anfield and score some goals.”
The role of history on these occasions is often overstated. But towards the end of his press conference on Tuesday night, Guardiola made a telling remark. “We knew immediately when the draw was made,” he said, “there is Anfield and the Champions League. They’ve won it five times. All the fans believe: this is our competition.”
And as City’s fans and players awaken to their hollow Wednesday morning, do they believe the Champions League is genuinely their competition? When backs are against walls and a screaming crowd is goading them, do they see it as their cue rather than their curse? That sense of ownership, even entitlement, is what powers the giants of European football.
You can’t fake it. You can’t buy it. All you can do is earn it, by minute degrees, through years of struggle. Like Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain and many of the other recent arrivals at Europe’s top table, City are discovering that the hard way. You might, if you were feeling particularly cruel, even call it football heritage.
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